The Toy Soldier Company: Home to Jersey City’s Little Big Man
Jamie Delson, owner of The Toy Soldier Company, holds in-house painted figures of The Night’s Watch, based on costume designs from “Game of Thrones.’Photo Essie Graham, copyright Jersey City Independent
The use of little men to plan full-scale combat operations may have begun in the war rooms of military strategists, but today they are part of a tradition handed down from generation to generation enjoyed by collectors and children the world over.
Contrary to popular belief, toy soldiers aren’t generally organized neatly behind glass and lit, never to be touched again. Most collectors, adults, find a dining room table or a battlefield to play out elaborate scenarios with their figurines. Toy soldiers range in complexity from monochromatic plastic pieces to painted metal figures with horses, weapons and musical instruments. No matter how ornate the collection, it’s likely available right here in Jersey City. Just down the street from Journal Square, The Toy Soldier Company is the largest mail order company specializing in new and vintage plastic and lead figures in the world. Celebrating their 30th anniversary next year, the company has relocated twice within Jersey City to its current bunker.
At the ripe old age of four, the company’s owner, Jamie Delson, got his first introduction to an ecosystem of fantasy that would change the arc of his life for decades. Robert Delson, his father, returning from a European business trip in 1952, awarded him with a set of beloved toy soldiers – a Scottish marching band.
“We lived in New York City, and whenever there was a parade, I was always fascinated by the bagpipers. That’s what made these toy soldiers so special,” says Delson, “They looked exactly like the bagpipers in the parades. I had other toy soldiers before, cowboys or aliens, but these were bagpipers. They were perfect.”
Sixty years later, his fascination for all things miniature has not waned. In fact, it has matured with time. As wars have come and gone, The Toy Soldier Company continues to capture history with its little men in uniform. From the Crusades to the New Worlds’ Revolutionary and Civil Wars, to knights, cowboys, pirates, gladiators, ninjas and today’s popular fictional and real-life warriors, there is no era The Toy Soldier Company hasn’t considered for its extensive catalog.
With parallels to the award-winning 1970 movie “Little Big Man” and the lead character Jack Crabb played by Dustin Hoffman, Delson straddled two worlds for a good part of his formative years – one of escapism into historical fantasy and the other rooted in the mundane world of making a living. Both Crabb and Delson also dealt with the duality of being committed pacifists while experiencing the harsh realities of war and how one justifies a worldview with such a dichotomy. Dissecting that paradox, Delson explains that while he understands how the public might be perplexed, it’s easy to explain.
“As a conscientious objector during the Vietnam era, I abhorred war from a very young age,” says Delson. “However, the world of toy soldier collecting does not correlate to war mongering at all. Ask any collector and they will tell you, it’s based on a love of history and attention to detail,” adds Delson.
Similar to Jack Crabb who was employed as a snake oil salesman, a muleskinner and an infantryman, Delson also pursued a number of professions before realizing his role. His first attempt at kick-starting a career was as a twenty-something artist with a one-man show in Manhattan. Unfortunately, a fire destroyed the gallery and his body of work before it had a chance to debut. This was followed by a decade of dabbling in journalism and screenwriting gigs, which according to Delson “stopped being fun” when manuscripts took months to produce, only to be rejected.
How the Vietnam War affected Delson’s life was also underscored in the movie. While “Little Big Man,” was set in the Wild West of the 19th Century, director Arthur Penn drew parallels to the unpopular war in Southeast Asia and the anti-establishment movement of the day. America’s venture into that endless military engagement also cast a foreboding shadow over the toy soldier world. Most of the major soldier manufacturers curtailed production as a direct result and the industry fell into the hands of “action figure gimcrackery,” something Delson detested. “It was at this time that the GI Joe action figure had an impact on the business,” said Delson.
Scale is of utmost importance for collectors. The standard toy soldier scale, originally adopted by the W. Britain brand is 54 mm (2.25 inches) or 1:32 scale. GI Joes made a big dent in the toy soldier market during this period, when companies like Hasbro began marketing the product as “action figures” versus “dolls.” However at 6 to 12 inches in size, these products, in addition to the “Star Wars” figures that followed, elicited minimal appeal from serious toy soldier collectors.
Over the years, customization has added an additional source of revenue for Delson’s company. When the industry slowed again post 9-11 and then again during the subsequent recession, Delson addressed requests from long-time regular customers to replicate figures from popular television shows and movies. From the cast members of the mini-series “Lonesome Dove” to “Saving Private Ryan,” to the esoteric Battle of Omdurman fought in 1898 Sudan, when the warring factions of the British, Egyptian and Sudanese needed to be created, no job has been too grand for Delson to consider. Today, he continues to follow trends with shows like HBO’s series “Game of Thrones.” Adapting to the storyline, he’s been able to recreate replicas of the various opposing warring families, including the detailed armor and coat of arms of the Lannisters. “I’ve even been able to breathe life into Jaime Lannister, also known as the ‘King Slayer,’ albeit prior to main character having his hand cut off,” says Delson.
The customization process is called hand animation and is the delicate work that distinguishes The Toy Soldier Company from its competitors. “In order to animate toy soldiers, we take existing figures, then, by cutting off and re-attaching hands, heads, arms, legs and other parts, we can create entirely new models which fit right in with other soldiers of various eras,” says Delson.
The cost of hand animation is dependent on the amount of detail added to each figure, and while Delson employs specialized freelancers for this type of work, he is also capable of animating the required look and feel of specific regiments himself. With as many as 15,000 military poses to choose from, costs for an individual figure can range at the low end of $6, and go as high as $60 when the finished product requires extensive research, development, and labor.
War Games is a popular sport among toy collectors and Delson and his friendly comrades-in-arms make it a point to compete in this type of activity at least once a month with face-to-face skirmishes. ‘Harold’s Rangers’ is Delson’s personalized rulebook for collectors who want to take their hobby to an entirely new level. He named it after Harold-Godwinson, the Saxon King of England who lost his battle of Hastings in 1066. “He established himself as an ethical albeit mercenary leader who fought for justice and good causes,” asserts Delson.
To commence a game, enthusiasts can use their own favorite leagues of soldiers to start. And with a couple sets of dice (2 each of 6-sided and 20-sided), they can easily learn to engage in battles by obtaining a copy of ‘Harold Rangers’ online and in the company’s mail order catalog.
Playing with large assemblies of toy soldiers, collectors can deploy tens of thousands of soldiers to reenact a specific conflict, battle or a complete war, covering any time period from the Ancient World to American West. Enacted on a large-scale map, in its most basic form, even the most inexperienced beginner can learn the rules and launch into play in an hour.
In 1984, Delson stocked over 2 million soldiers in his apartment and later in a warehouse in Dumbo, Brooklyn. Today with 9,000 square feet of space in the old Topps Building in Jersey City (a company that once manufactured watch bands) he can store up to 4 million little men.
When asked about today’s current trend in toy soldier purchasing, Delson sees a resurgent interest in the Cowboy and Indian era of the 1800s. Coincidentally, Jack Crabb is remembered as the oldest survivor of the Wild West living right up to the unbelievable age of 151. And while Delson never rubbed elbows with the likes of a Custer or a Wild Bill Hickok, if you had a hankering for a reenactment of the wars they fought in, there’s a standing invitation at The Toy Soldier Company website, where you can place that order with Jersey City’s very own little big man.
All photos taken by Essie Graham, copyright Jersey City Independent